Interview with Radio Beethoven

by Romina de la Sotta
Radio Beethoven, Chile - July 20, 2008

Some have thought that you studied music in order to master the architecture that music and poetry have in common. You studied with Carlos Isamitt and with Pedro Humberto Allende, you have rated "the greatest composer of South America." Did they leave traces in your music? Your poetry?

When Pedro Humberto Allende, my teacher of composition, harmony, and counterpoint, tried to convince me that I had to dedicate myself solely to music, I told him: "I study poetry for music's sake, and music for poetry's sake." It was a way of showing him that I wasn't going to abandon either of the two. A correct answer would have been to tell him that I studied astronomy and physics and botany for music's sake, and studied music for the sake of astronomy, physics, and botany - because everything is a unity. It is also a way, the least fragmentary possible, of studying myself.

To speak of poetry and music is, for me, didactic. In me, they are not separate things. Since I've had the ability to reason, what I've wanted is to understand why I am here, what is this that I am. The ideal: to know everything. I have always had that attitude: the dream that I could manage to learn everything, and even more. Knowledge is infinite, but the more of it, the better. The only real entertainment, in a profound sense, is to arrive at relatively exact information: to learn. Music and poetry are ways of self-expression. Any art, when it is really art, always informs. It depends on the preparation and honesty of the creator. In my understanding, art is such, in any language - musical or plastic, banal, exquisite or mathematical - when the individual expresses something experienced. Otherwise, what's expressed is irrelevant. If one really knows, one finds the way to make oneself understood. We're surrounded by an enormous tendency to lie. It's the first thing I realized I needed to know: how to recognize the truth in the middle of so many lies. At least, not to lie to myself.

To really be an artist is to create silence in order to be able to hear oneself, and in that way to succeed, with internal perspective, to listen to the exterior world. I contemplate reality as if it were a language: reality speaks to me, and I have to attend to and understand its language. How do I transmit it? Through music, poetry, and drawings. The more I investigate, the more I perfect that. In spite of life's limitations, when I would stake my life on something that I've realized, I have the irresistible impulse to express it, seeking the most precise way: that which doesn't betray what I know. If I am making the portrait of a person or an event, the only thing that matters to me is the person or the event, to be able to affirm: "I am." Faithfulness to the subject and the object. Consistent with the substance: in a poem, a musical composition, or a drawing.

I admire Pedro Humberto Allende because he wanted to give me tools, so that I could use them as I saw fit. He knew that I was going to study everything that he was going to teach me. What mattered to him was that I mastered what was conventional, established, and academic, using it the way I needed to in order to say what I wanted to say. What he wanted was for me to know what I was doing, conscious of tradition as being just another element. From that sprang his enthusiasm for my compositions and his wish that I dedicate myself exclusively to music. What he wanted most was to be surprised - positively, of course. Carlos Isamitt was also a very skilled teacher. He wanted, before intervening, for me to investigate as much as possible. I am enormously indebted to Andrée Haas. She, for example, made me keep time, with my left hand, in 3/4 time; with the right hand, in 4/4, and, with my feet, in 6/4; and then, using various accents: in adagio and then abruptly, in presto: all that simultaneously. Her classes were very useful to me. That is, her classes were artistic.

You have said: "Every time I have shown my works to pianists, they have told me they find them extremely difficult. Claudio Arrau, in Santiago, rehearsing in the house of Zita Miller, listened to some of my works, found them extremely difficult and insisted that I record them myself." Why do you believe your poetic work has been more recognized than your work as a composer?

Some of my books have been published throughout my life. But I began recording my music only relatively few years ago, and it is only now being published. I have been dedicated to my poetry, my music, my drawings, and my human relationships. I haven't had time to dedicate to the dissemination of my works. What I consider essential to my creative work is to be the defendant, jury, and judge of what I am creating. Art, in order to be art, requires not doing things by halves. In general, life, with its comings and goings and responsibilities, obliges one to do things 'more or less.' In art, it's the opposite. It cannot be 'more or less.' Either it is or it isn't. If the grade is from one to seven, it needs to be an eight. What grade to give the forty-eight Preludes and Fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach, to the Lyric Suite of Alban Berg, to the Child with the Top of Chardin? A seven? They are well beyond that.

Please comment on why poetry is an oral phenomenon. Also comment on how poetry, just as much as music, "are arts in which Time is transformed into Space", in contrast to painting and sculpture, in which Space is transformed into Time.

Poetry is not only an oral phenomenon. One of the elements that contributes to the meaning is orality, but everything is there for the sake of the meaning. There is a visual aspect to a poem, the graphical aspect, the sequence of the elements. And the silence. Even in music: the sonority of silence. Just as rhythm and movement are fundamental to sculpture, painting, and architecture, one can speak of the musicality of certain paintings of Monet, or of the plasticity in Debussy. Equilibrium is at the center of all the arts.

You have said that authors don't interest you, that only their work matters. Is there a dialogue between your work and Chile? A dialogue of coming and going? What does Chile say to you, as the creator of your work?

My work occurs on this planet and Chile is on this planet. My spatial awareness came to me in Chile. In Santiago, the horizon marked by the Andes gave me the measure of limitation. It was a powerful experience to be on the beach in Cartagena and contemplate the farewell of the sun. The sun disappeared, but the image of the sun, disappearing, has not disappeared in me. The things that matter to me do not abandon me. If I love a person and no longer see him or her, I don't cease loving. If you wish to call that a conversation, I have been conversing with Chile all my life.

How did you find (make out, guess, intuit, confirm, remember, to the extent it had occurred) your truth? Is there a particular moment – or perhaps repeated a thousand times – in which you guess what you must, can, and wish to foresee? To construct a bridge between your artistic approximation to the truth and the intuitions of readers, in such a way that the individual would be universal and the universal yours, mine, or ours?

I don't know if I found something or if that something found me. Art and science are fundamentally the same: an agreement between the object and the observer: a real marriage: I want to learn from the other, and the other wants to inform me, or the other wants me to struggle until I break his resistance. The center of the multiverse is everywhere: if you brush against your center, you brush against the center of the multiverse.

You ask me: "Is there a particular moment – or perhaps repeated a thousand times – in which you guess what you must, can, and wish to foresee?" It is not a matter of foreseeing; it's a matter of investigating. What is guessed does not belong to me until I have realized it for myself. If I had guessed, I would have the greatest mistrust of what I had obtained. To guess is to improvise: a frivolous way to make contact. To guess, often, is to assume. The result is not mine. The attitude of taking the responsibility to make it mine is indispensable to me in my work. Intuition is a preliminary way to approach something, but it isn't enough. Intuition is a tool that corroborates, but does not take us to the goal. It is a tool that should be mistrusted as much as it is trusted: it is a point of departure. To arrive at conclusions through guessing, intuiting? Risky and not very serious. Those are tools we can use, provided we have others. Intuition, certainly, provokes. I prefer experience. If I am going to speak about something, I have to be an expert on it. What value do my intuitions have? Life is short, even to embrace a little of the truth. And the door of truth doesn't open with the key of my intuitions alone. Intuitions help me, but they don't offer me certainty. The same is true of the reader.

Perhaps it will be clearer if I give the following example: if I am reading a book of scientific data, it is not so that it will give me intuitions. I need to absorb it. If the researcher is serious, I obtain information. If I give a formula in physics or mathematics, it is not so that the reader will use his intuition. The work of the reader is to absorb and comprehend what I am saying. It's not forbidden for the reader to use his intuitions. It is a matter, in essence, of something practical: to resolve a fragment of the enigma it is to be here.

You have been able, if I'm not mistaken, to live for what is. Tell me, please, how many synonyms pass through your mind in each verse? How many times do you change the order of a phrase? I ask in order to know if you feel yourself to be a hunter of reality, if you have to corner the Truth, frighten it, reassure it, pamper it, and reduce it. Because the vital pulse of your work, its ironies, sweetness, images and naked phonemes, each manipulation of what is worthwhile to you, configure a precise, multicolored poetry, rich in meaning and ingenuity. And in spite of the fact that truth, like blood, flows as I read, many times I'm left with a strange sensation of having heard the steps of an elf. And that subtle trace of the contrast between revealed truth and artifice is many times what is called genius in poetry. Is that, for you too, the vocation of poet?

You say: "You have been able, if I'm not mistaken, to live for what is." It is as if you were to tell me: "You have been able, if I'm not mistaken, to breathe." I cannot avoid breathing. To compose, to write, is, for me, to breathe. You ask me: "How many synonyms pass through your mind in each verse?" There are no synonyms in poetry. There has to be an exact fit between the phonic and the conceptual. What is arbitrary in language ceases to be so when it is poetry. It has to adapt to the structure, the rhythm, to sane logic and to crazy logic: and everything at the service of the meaning. You ask me: "How many times do you change the order of a phrase?" It's not a matter of changing the order of a phrase. It's a matter of faithfulness to the thought: like creating a child who has the potential to be perfect: a being who enriches the existence of whoever approaches him.

You say something that I like: "I ask in order to know if you feel yourself to be a hunter of reality, if you have to corner the Truth, frighten it, reassure it, pamper it, and reduce it." The truth does that with me, not I with the truth: it corners me, it frightens me, it gives me trust, it pampers me, reduces me, and seduces me. The truth, sometimes, is not difficult to find. The problem is that at every moment, the lie dresses itself up as the truth. You believe you have the truth, and you are only fighting with lies. One must undress the lies. I will repeat your words: one has to corner them, frighten them, pamper them. It's not a matter of language being rich or poor; it's a matter of being exact. Talent is not sufficient: talent must be used with talent. Genius, in poetry or in anything else, has nothing to do with 'artifice' or with 'revealed truth'. Genius, in my judgment, is a man conscious of his vocation, who puts the best of himself in his vocation. What is more 'revealed truth' than that effort?

Do you feel you have anything unresolved with Chile?

I have nothing unresolved with Chile, because Chile vibrates in me in every moment.

Listen to the interview here: